Thursday, November 27, 2008

Plymouth Adventure (1952)

“Plymouth Adventure” (1952) presents the Pilgrims in an unexpected kind of soap opera about the captain of the Mayflower lusting after the wife of future Governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford.

Any film about any point in history is bound to be lacking the complete story, possibly because there never is a complete story. History is a lot more chaotic than a movie script; things don’t tie up quite as neatly as we might wish. Sometimes the attempt to bridge the gaps often leads to complete fabrication, producing a movie that may not have very much value at all historically, perhaps not even as entertainment.

“Plymouth Adventure” invents some things, like the romantic triangle between the captain, and William and Dorothy Bradford. It disregards others, like the relationship the settlers had with the Indians. The Wampanoag are given short shrift, and their importance in helping the settlers to survive the first few winters is not even mentioned. The film ends even before what we call the first Thanksgiving. Despite this, it is an earnest attempt at dramatizing what was surely one of the most remarkable voyages in history.

Spencer Tracy plays the captain, a cynical, crude man of the sea who is contemptuous not only of his Pilgrim passengers but of people in general. Gene Tierney is Dorothy Bradford, the object of Mr. Tracy’s sarcasm, lust, and eventually, love. Van Johnson plays John Alden in a rather small role, and a young Lloyd Bridges is the ratfink first mate.

We might forgive the fact that the costumes are a bit too Disney-like and clean, and that there are no authentic accents employed. The dialogue is strong and sharp, with some great lines especially by Spencer Tracy, it is really his movie, but the dialogue is not at all the correct speech of Englishmen of that era. What the film does well is special effects, with a terrific replica of the Mayflower used, and a storm at sea that is truly scary. It is the first chink in the armor of seeing the Pilgrims as all pious and brave. This film is probably the first attempt to show them as businessmen, as opportunists, as jealous and fearful, as zealots, as human beings. It is remarkable that a setting with such inherent drama and turmoil should be so little visited by Hollywood.

Directed by Clarence Brown (whose transition from the automotive industry to motion pictures is mentioned in this 2007 blog post), the film attempts to shrug off the fairy tale aspect of the Pilgrims and gives us corrupt company sponsors of the trip, and a lot of bare-chested, barefooted sailors climbing the rigging to unfurl the enormous sails. There is excellent camera work, with some terrific deck-to-topsail shots. We are given a fascinating and somewhat funny demonstration by Miles Standish on the cumbersome and dangerous operation of the 17th century percussion musket.

We are also treated to a brief sampling of songs authentic to the era, including a scene when land is spotted as the Pilgrims burst into the song whose words come from the Henry Ainsworth Psalter, Psalm 100:

Shout to Jehovah, all the earth,
Serve ye Jehovah with gladness;
before him come with singing mirth
Know that Jehovah he God is.

It's he that made us, and not we;
his folk, and sheep of his feeding.
O with confession enter ye
his gates, his courtyards with praising.

Confess to him, bless ye his name.
Because Jehovah he good is:
his mercy ever is the same
and his faith, unto all ages.

You can listen to another version of the tune here.

But as the journey concludes, the story begins to focus on the captain and Mrs. Bradford, and their hunger for each other. It makes John Alden’s flirtation with Priscilla Mullins look like puppy love, despite that he is a lonely bachelor and she is the only adult unmarried female on the trip.

An especially dark ending involves the actual historic event of the death of Dorothy Bradford and the actual dispute as to how she died. Before the English settlers (to avoid confusion, not all the passengers on the Mayflower were Pilgrims), established their settlement, while the Mayflower was still safely moored in the harbor at Provincetown, Dorothy Bradford drowned.

Her drowning was noted in history as far back as Cotton Mather’s “Magnalia”, but in 1869, a story in Harper’s New England Monthly suggested she had commited suicide. Though much of this story has been discounted, there are continuing discussions as to whether she could have committed suicide.

What is interesting is that the film even hints at this controversy. It could have ignored it altogether for a more prim and pious, and uplifting ending. Bradford, played by Leo Glenn replies that she would not have done such an ungodly thing and is immediately comforted, though with never a strong effort to convince, that she must have fallen overboard accidentally.

To help us accept the Pilgrims as human beings, more authentic representation from that era could be employed, rather than viewing their story through a 20th century prism. Another song of the period, a sweet and almost mournful tune by Thomas Ravenscroft, not used in this film, takes us to emotions even Pilgrims felt, and without the use of 20th century screenwriter’s dialogue:

Canst thou love and lie alone?
Love is so disgraced!
Pleasure is best wherein is rest
In a heart embraced.

That they loved and lost, and lusted, and felt deeply about it should not come as a shock. At least Hollywood acknowledges that.

Perhaps it is unavoidable that the film may have the look of one of the Hudson River School of romantic impressionist paintings. Maybe that’s what we’re looking for. Part of telling a story is re-affirming what we already know, as much as it is an effort at imparting to us something we do not.

Aside from this film’s slight attempt to crawl out from the iconic image we have of the Pilgrims, I wonder if the reaction of Americans in general to this portrayal of the Pilgrims is anything as strong as the reaction of someone from Massachusetts.

Massachusetts possesses the Pilgrims and to some extent is possessed by them. These names of the characters in this film: Winthrop, Bradford, John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, Miles Standish, this is a roll call of the pantheon of icons of early Massachusetts history and are also the names which live among us today. Their descendents live here still, their names are on towns, schools, and it is possible to drive through Plymouth past the Miles Standish State Forest and stop in at the John Alden Gift Shop for a box of salt water taffy, and then head back to your room a block up at the Governor Bradford Inn. The pensive Pilgrim standing on the deck of the Mayflower II replica in Plymouth Harbor at the beginning of this post is not a Thanksgiving prop. These reinactors are with us the year round at Plimoth Plantation. (For more on Plimoth Plantation, see my post here from 2007 at my New England Travels blog.)

To watch this film and see John Alden portrayed by Van Johnson is more than a little startling and amusing to someone from Massachusetts. I imagine it could be likened to what a scholar of Greek mythology might react to him playing Zeus.

Something as basic as that can keep even a very good film from being taken too seriously. But then, no film should probably be taken too seriously anyway. For how many of us across this country is seeing our historical figures-cum-folk heroes brought to life in Technicolor by Hollywood’s latest hearthrobs an obstacle to making us believe?

The other thing missing in this film is turkey. Which reminds me…I’m about due to take the bird out of the oven. Happy Thanksgiving.

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